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how 'sadfishing' became our favourite coping mechanism

Far from being just a way of seeking attention, venting on social media is a way of reaching out across the void and forging a support network.

by Douglas Greenwood
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Oct 4 2019, 3:11pm

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Why does the vastness of social media sometimes feel like a safer space than your best mate’s bedroom, where you’ve cried a dozen times before over a plethora of your problems? At what point did we start to think that the more people knew about our personal turmoils, the less it would hurt? It’s difficult to pinpoint, but is undoubtedly a byproduct of the internet age, in which our relationship with "real" (read: offline) people has been sidelined and skewed in favour of distant cries out into the ether of social media.

Enter ‘sadfishing’: a new term coined to describe the act of seeking sympathy online rather than confiding in people IRL. Sadfishing is, for many reasons, both a good and a bad thing. Sharing sad news or flagrantly honest insights into your mental health via your Instagram stories, tweets or Facebook posts has become increasingly more common. It’s easy to see it as a mere method of attention seeking, transforming grief and melancholy into something more quantifiable to make you feel better about your problems. But it’s nothing to scoff at.

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Sadfishing, despite the negative connotations of its name, is in fact a modern coping mechanism. It's just one we don’t yet know enough about. In fact, the term was only coined this year by Digital Awareness UK, a research company conducting a study into the mental health and wellbeing of schoolkids. Professional psychologists are now playing catch-up; many are wary of discussing it because it’s such a new phenomenon, and so we have to ask those actually doing it -- predominantly internet-native Gen Zers -- to make real sense of it instead.

22-year-old Amy knows she sadfishes. “You have a problem and it's festering in your head but you don't actually want to talk about it to someone,” she tells i-D. “You can't keep [these thoughts] in your head but also, you want to get them out somewhere. So I take to my Twitter to vent, share things I wouldn't usually share -- intimate things too. All because, for some reason, it feels like the people on Twitter aren't actually real.” What Amy points out is a prime example of how some of us recognise social media as an entity rather than the hundreds, maybe thousands of people that its comprise of; every one of them taking note of, or ignoring, how we’re feeling.

For every skip-story-and-eye roll reaction, there’s a DM slide in solidarity with you; maybe a “you okay?” response from someone you’ve met one or two times, or the kind of close friend you should have gone to directly in the first place. “It just feels like as soon as I've pressed send on the tweet, a whole weight feels lifted off my shoulders.” Amy says. “But my mum will see my tweets and text me saying ‘What's your tweet about?’ and I'll just be like, "’Stop being nosey!’. Why did I put something on there when I knew I wasn't going to be able to talk about it?”

After all, the most common misconception about sadfishing is that we all do it solely for attention, seeking a response from someone to make us feel better. In many ways, the act itself starts reaping its rewards as soon as you’ve clicked send: getting something deeply personal off of your chest and out into the world instead. Some people find solace in the likes and comments that stream in soon after; others fear interaction altogether. “I think it’s usually for validation,” Alia thinks. Alia was born in Malaysia but lives in London. Most of her vents are posted “religiously” to her close friends story.

“I scatter my words bit by bit with pointless selfies as a background,” she says, particularly about returning to the capital after spending a few months away and struggling to recalibrate. Attention seeking and validation are starkly different: the former is something confident people crave; the latter is for those who feel a little more lost. “I know people who are quiet in person but post a lot on social media,” she says of those seeking validation. “Their confidence is filtered through that, and so the idea and reality of people watching your stories or reading your tweets and responding is a boost.”

There are varying degrees of severity to sadfishing online, and while some people are content just getting their sadness out there and off their minds, there are others who need help and are actively seeking it for the right reasons. In a time when access to therapy and mental health services is increasingly more difficult (only one in four young people with psychological issues are seen by a professional in the UK), sometimes an Instagram feed is the only place a person will be heard. It’s important to read between the lines with these things, and to take every claim seriously instead of being instantly dismissive.

We can’t help but be cynical sometimes, though. Perhaps the most common understanding of sadfishing -- the one that gave it a name derived from the act of catfishing -- is that it's exploitative and deceptive. That those who do it aren’t actually sad, but instead use their social media feeds and the negative parts of their lives -- most commonly the death of a relative or a pet -- to drum up attention. We already know that the double buzz of a notification has a positive effect on our serotonin levels. Isn’t it a kind of self-prescribed therapy to actively seek that interaction out, and use it to make ourselves feel better for a short time?

So while it might be easy to assume there’s a malice involved in sadfishing, perhaps it’s more responsible to look at the bigger picture and the end results. Seeing the umpteenth photo of someone’s dead dog on your Instagram feed might seem like overkill, but have you ever thought of the good you’re doing by smashing that like button? After all, a like doesn’t have to be considered meaningless. Is it impersonal? Maybe, but there’s no denying that being there for someone is better than ghosting them when they’re down. Look at it that way.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.